The paper reviewed here is ‘The Social Connectedness of Older Adults: A National Profile’ by Cornwell, Laumann and Schumm and freely available here. The authors use data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project (NSHAP). This project includes 3,005 ‘older Americans’. The age range was 57-85. The sample group were ‘non-institutionalised’ which means there may be a selection bias to those who are healthier or more highly functioning. I wasn’t clear on how the researchers got from the original 4,400 potential participants to the final 3,005. They also state that there was oversampling for race, ethnicity, age and gender. We are told that the NSHAP dataset contains information on a number of social variables including ‘egocentric social networks’ and ‘community involvement’. While there is relatively little in the text about the sample group, there is a very helpful table in the Appendix – A4 which breaks down the demographics and compares this with the results of 2 other community surveys. The figures are very similar in these tables. One of the central features that the authors examine in this study is the egocentric social network. In the methodology section, the authors describe how they assess this network – by asking participants who they discuss things that are important to them with. They cite some relevant studies about this tool although reliability and validity data are not listed in this paper which is particularly relevant as the responses are dependent on recall which is subject to bias. As the paper is cross-sectional the relationship between age and social factors can be thoughts of as an association rather than causal as would be better demonstrated in a suitably powered longitudinal study. A number of the other measures are binomial (i.e. is the participant retired or not?). The authors found a significant inverse association between age and the size of social networks. The researchers also found an association between increasing social network size and a number of other factors including female gender, ethnicity, education being a parent and retirement. The researchers found that the oldest participants were less likely to be close to their network members than younger participants and other factors which were associated with closeness to network members included female gender, small network size and having been married. The oldest participants were not more likely to be associated with tightly-knit social groups – referred to as ‘network density’. Older Hispanic participants were more likely to associate with community neighbours than older non-Hispanics. Increasing age was associated with increased contacts with the community and also increased religious attendance. Increasing age was associated with increasing likelihood of volunteering. The study raised a number of questions and it would be interesting to see these answered with qualitative methodology which would be well suited for these types of questions.
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